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India has its first case of SARS — Are our transit points safe enough?

P.T. Jyothi Datta

NEW DELHI, April 17

INDIA today reported its first Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) victim, a 32-year-old marine engineer who reached Mumbai after travelling through Hong Kong and Singapore.

The quick reaction time of the Health Ministry's machinery notwithstanding - apprehensions still abound on the effectiveness of the health filters at the airport and how secure they actually are.

Giving details on the first reported case, Dr S.P. Agarwal, Director-General Health Services, told media persons that the marine engineer was "no longer infective" and that his wife and other family contacts were being screened. Having arrived in Mumbai on April 1, the individual had proceeded to Goa, where he reported to a private practitioner on developing cold and fever. He responded to conventional antibiotics and was declared "afebrile" and sent home a few days later, on the advice "home quarantine".

Subsequently, samples of his blood etc were sent to the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, where it was confirmed that the sequence resembled the SARS virus. Meanwhile, another 42-year-old New Zealander, a suspected SARS victim who came into India from Bangkok, has also been isolated in the Capital.

Representatives in the healthcare and medical fraternity point out that in the Mumbai-case, the individual was let off and subsequently found to be a SARS victim.

"In the past too, people have been declared safe and sent away. Are they being traced? What happens to people who shared the flight with the SARS victim, who have interacted with him in Mumbai and Goa. Are they being screened? Also, why were the samples sent to NIV only after discharging the individual?"

Apprehensions abound on the effectiveness of the screening process that exists at transit points such as airports, given that SARS has spread like wild-fire thanks to air-traffic.

Immigration officials and health-workers do wear masks and passengers have to fill out a proforma, insist Health Ministry officials. Asked on whether these filters were effective and whether there would be a further scaling-up of the screening process at the airports, following the identification of the first SARS case, Dr Agarwal said : "We have already scaled up the monitoring and the presence of health officials at the airports," he told Business Line.

However, representatives in the clinical diagnostics segment feel that the Government must consider providing proper masks to all passengers transiting through airports, sea-ports and porous land-borders. "This is a simple, but effective way of preventing SARS from spreading further." Masks are priced between Rs 3.50 and Rs 50 for a high-end mask. But to have a good, effective mask handed out at transit points, as seen in other Asian countries, is but a small-price to pay to ward off an illness whose global toll has touched 160 deaths and 3,400 infected people.

Star Cruises redeploys ships

Cruise-liner company Star Cruises has temporarily redeployed two of its ships — SuperStar Virgo and SuperStar Leo — to the new bases in Sydney and Perth, Australia respectively.

These ships have been operating from Hong Kong and Singapore till now. "The decision to deploy the ships to Australia is a result of the continuing market challenges and difficult operating conditions we have been facing in our core markets in Asia which warranted an immediate review of the ships' current itineraries.

"Star Cruises is using the advantage of the deployment flexibility of its ships to operate the larger vessels in non-affected SARS countries that are not affected by SARS," said Mr Chong Chee Tut, Star Cruises' Chief Operating Officer.

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